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Literature

The end of the beginning

So, we’ve finished our year of reading C.S. Lewis books and in my final blog I’ll try to sum up something of what we’ve learnt.

But first, thanks to Christine, Julia, Karen, Lisa and Sandra for joining me as we met each month and discussed the latest book.  Your insights and our discussions have been invaluable in opening up aspects of the books I hadn’t noticed, and I have valued the discipline that meant because we were meeting, I had to finish the latest book!

If you’ve joined the Facebook group, I hope that if you have also joined us by reading some of the books and blogs, you have enjoyed the experience of delving into C.S. Lewis too.

We agreed at our final meeting that the book club came at the right time for us for various reasons.  We entered the second and third lockdowns during the 12 months of the club, and we found it helpful that we had something to focus on and that because of Zoom we could still “meet” for our monthly discussions. In fact, in the end we never met in person, so the book club helped us cope with the restrictions of lockdown. For me, there was the strange coincidence that we read A Grief Observed just after my father died, and so I was able to engage with that book in a very personal way, particularly as my father’s thought was so shaped by C.S. Lewis. 

We also valued the fact that because of the book club we tackled books that we might not otherwise have tried. This was especially true of Lewis’s more theological books, but also of That Hideous Strength. Those who didn’t normally read science fiction tried it, although I’m not sure it made them any more interested in the genre – most felt it was one of the most difficult books.

Big themes emerged during the year; Lewis’s idea of joy and of the longing for God that will never fully be satisfied until we meet Him after death; the reality that we all fall short of God’s perfection, but that ultimately it doesn’t matter, because He still forgives and accepts us for who we are; the wonder and miracle of nature and creation; the dangers of the daily temptations that can gradually separate us from God; the logic of faith.  We found that Lewis was unrelenting in his honest portrayal of human nature, with all its flaws, but that he ultimately finds that there is always redemption.

We expected Lewis to be complex and high-minded and didn’t always find him easy reading – sometimes we might feel “please just get to the point”, but often also we were surprised by new insights.  For me one of those was the new realisation that there are so many everyday miracles, such as how a cut heals. We were also surprised and pleased by how honest his writings are. He was very self-aware and this was refreshing as he is often put on a pedestal as one of the great writers of the 20th century, but in his books we see him being as remorselessly critical of his own behaviour as he is of others’.

There was also the pleasure of enjoying Lewis the storyteller and we particularly liked The Great Divorce and The Screwtape Letters where he used his vivid imagination to help illustrate theology.  And of course, the Narnia books, which we all agreed at the final meeting were our favourites.

So what comes next? I am going to continue reading C.S. Lewis but perhaps not in such an intense way. I certainly have The Abolition of Man on the list, as when discussing That Hideous Strength in the Facebook Official C.S. Lewis Group a number of people recommended The Abolition of Man as setting out the ideas behind the novel. I also plan to read the first two books in the science fiction trilogy, and to have a look at Till We Have Faces.

Reading C.S. Lewis has helped me this year by reminding me of some key principles of my Christian faith. But it has also helped me through the sad reality of my father’s death. As I wrote at the beginning of the year and in my tribute blog, Dad introduced me to C.S. Lewis and it feels as though the timing has been absolutely right that I have had C.S. Lewis to accompany me at the end of Dad’s journey on earth.  

Because reading his books again has reinforced for me the lesson I learned from Dad and Lewis as a child, that when all sorts of things, like this book club, come to an end, that is just the beginning of something else. And death is not the end. It is just the end of our chapter on earth.

So it seems fitting to finish this year of blogs about reading C.S. Lewis by quoting again from The Last Battle, the final Chronicle of Narnia.

“As [Aslan] spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page; now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

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Literature

Questions about The Four Loves

On Friday the book club met for our final meeting in our year of reading C.S. Lewis. We were discussing The Four Loves.

We started by remembering how Lewis defined “Need-love” and “Gift-love” at the beginning of the book and then moved on through the chapters. These are the questions we looked at:

  1. What do you think about Need-love? When is it selfish?
  2. Is it dangerous when instead of “God is love” we say “love is God”?
  3. What do you think about Lewis’s view of loving Nature, that it provides “a language of images” to help us understand God and things like glory or fear?
  4. Was C.S. Lewis woke? (with reference to his views about love of one’s country, and how we should make a “full confession of Christendom’s specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery”).
  5. What do you think about Lewis’s view that we can use affection as a weapon (eg a mother staying up late when her child goes out so the child can’t really enjoy themselves). What examples do you have of affection being “weaponised”?
  6. Do you relate to Lewis’s idea that affection is about familiarity and we can feel it for people even when we have nothing in common?
  7. Is there a difference between male and female friendship?
  8. Can friendships lead to ‘in-groups’? What are the dangers of that?
  9. Talking about how people take sex very seriously, Lewis says “we have reached the stage at which nothing is more needed than a roar of old-fashioned laughter”. Do you agree?
  10.  Do you agree that Eros must die or become a demon unless he obeys God?
  11. Lewis writes “to love at all is to be vulnerable”. Do you agree?
  12. In the end the whole book points to Lewis’s overarching idea that only God can help us to love others properly, and that we need to love Him first of all. He says “Perhaps, for many of us, all experience merely defines, so to speak, the shape of that gap where our love of God ought to be”. What do you think the overall message of the book is?

As always, we had found the book thought-provoking and refreshing. We liked the examples Lewis described of how love can go wrong, and we agreed that he was pointing to God’s love as the only way to make our flawed human loves better.

In my next blog I’ll review the year and sum up what it has meant for the members of the book club and me.

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Literature

The ultimate Love

I’ve always found the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew chapter 25 uncomfortable. In this parable the sheep and goats are judged according to whether they have helped and cared for the marginalised, those who are hungry and thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison.  In the parable Jesus tells the listeners that whenever they cared for one of these people, they were in fact caring for him, the king. It’s uncomfortable because it’s a reminder of how Jesus expects his followers to love others and how we may fall short.

In The Four Loves, Lewis discusses this parable and says that this kind of caring “apparently is Gift-love to God whether we know it or not”.

We can often feel as though we somehow deserve God’s love. As Lewis says “No sooner do we believe that God loves us than there is an impulse to believe that He does so, not because He is Love, but because we are intrinsically lovable.”

Lewis is clear that actually, we are not. We are no more lovable than anyone else, including the marginalised people we are called to love.  We are all equally loved by God, not because of who we are, but in spite of who we are.

And if we love other people as God wants us to, we do this because God helps us to do so. “Divine Gift-love in the man enables him to love what is not naturally lovable… criminals, enemies… the sulky, the superior and the sneering.”

Lewis is pointing out the perfection of God’s love and is also showing how when we love those who we might naturally have difficulty loving, we are somehow mirroring in a small way God’s love. He has made it clear in the earlier chapters of the book that actually all our loves are imperfect or marred unless we allow God to help us love like He does.

In a chapter which at times seems quite complex, Lewis is pointing us to the ultimate Love.

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Literature

The vulnerability of love

So we come to the final chapter in C.S. Lewis’s book The Four Loves. It is called Charity and it is about God’s love and how we may express it in our lives. Perhaps the most famous description of this kind of love in the Bible is in 1 Corinthians 13.

Lewis starts off by talking about how as he has demonstrated in previous chapters “The natural loves are not sufficient”. He has shown how all of them go bad without God’s help.

He discusses how until very recently, theologians often emphasised how it was very important that we did not love other people more than God.

Trying to define what this means, he looks at St. Augustine’s view when he was heartbroken at the death of a friend, that this was what came of giving one’s heart to anything but God.

But Lewis feels that St. Augustine was wrong in his analysis. The reason is that if we follow this to its logical conclusion, we will try to protect ourselves from loving anyone just in case we are heartbroken if we lose them, because that could show that we loved them more than God.

In fact, says Lewis, “to love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken”. Moreover “I believe that the most lawless and inordinate loves are less contrary to God’s will than a self-invited and self-protective lovelessness”. Of course we can end up idolising the people we love, but Lewis feels that “The real question is, which [of God or another person] do you servie, or choose, or put first? To which claim does your will, in the last resort, yield?”

In other words, we can and should love other people – whilst remembering that ultimately our first allegiance is to God.

I remember a Simon and Garfunkel song that was popular when I was young. The singer is trying to protect himself from pain by saying that he is “a rock…an island” but then he admits “And a rock feels no pain. And an island never cries”. He is protected from the pain of love, but the cost is high. Lewis does not recommend this.

If we avoid love because of fear, he says, and lock up our heart “it will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell”.

Love makes us vulnerable.

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Literature

When love goes bad

Moving on from his discussion of “Venus” in The Four Loves Lewis goes on to talk about Eros, or the state of being in love, as a whole.

As he often does in his books, he reminds us that we are animals as well as souls and that therefore while Eros is “a soaring passion” it is linked to “such mundane factors as weather, health, diet, circulation, and digestion”. Moreover, “it is a continual demonstration of the truth that we are composite creatures, rational animals, akin on one side to angels, on the other to tom-cats”.

It can feel quite uncomfortable to be compared to tom-cats, but Lewis continues with thoughts that are in some ways more uncomfortable, for he reminds us that even though romantic love is something people desire and aspire to, it is not always a good thing. Like other loves, it can be damaged by our selfishness and self-centredness, what Lewis would call sin.

He points out that “even when it becomes clear beyond all evasion that marriage with the Beloved cannot possibly lead to happiness… Eros never hesitates to say, ‘Better this than parting. Better to be miserable with her than happy without her’” and I can think of lots of novels that deal with this very subject.

So “falling in love” may lead to foolish decisions about marriage and partnership and these may lead to unhappiness when people are mismatched, but it can also taken to extremes urge people to actual evil.

Because Eros is so all-consuming, Lewis argues, people caught up in its passions act in extreme ways, but this can lead to bad things as well as good things. “The love which leads to cruel and perjured unions, even to suicide-pacts and murder, is not likely to be wandering lust or idle sentiment. It may be Eros in all his splendour.” Again, there are many novels and plays dealing with this darker side of Eros.

So as with the other loves Lewis has described so far, Eros is not wholly a positive love. In the hands of fallible people, Eros can lead to all sorts of misery. And even when it does not lead to the extremes of killing and cruelty, it can lead to disappointment.

The guard against this for Lewis is that as with other loves, people should submit their romantic love to God’s expectations of how they behave towards others. He points out that after a while the strong feelings involved when people fall in love change. If people have “expected that mere feeling would do for them… all that was necessary” in their relationships they will be disappointed in the face of the difficulties of everyday life. Eros has given them a glimpse of what is possible, but now “we must do the works of Eros when Eros is not present…. And all good Christian lovers know that this programme, modest as it sounds will not be carried out except by humility, charity and divine grace… The god dies or becomes a demon unless he obeys God”.

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Literature

Laughing at love

Lewis devotes a chapter of The Four Loves to Eros. He says “By Eros I mean of course that state which we call ‘being in love’; or, if you prefer, that kind of love which lovers are ‘in’”.

He calls the sexual element within this kind of love “Venus” and feels that the two are not the same thing. He thinks that Eros is about desiring a particular person, and that this may or may not include sexual desire – it usually does at some point but it is not a given. “In some mysterious but quite indisputable fashion the lover desires the Beloved herself, not the pleasure she can give.”

In a discussion of “Venus” talks about how the act of love is taken too seriously. He was writing in the 1950s, a time when Freud was very influential and when sex was weighted with all sorts of meanings in a way that is probably not the case now. “I believe we are all being encouraged to take Venus too seriously; at any rate, with the wrong kind of seriousness. All my life a ludicrous and portentous solemnisation of sex has been going on.”

His view is that actually “We have reached the stage at which nothing is more needed than a roar of old-fashioned laughter”. He talks about how lovers need to, and often can, laugh together about how ridiculous sex sometimes is.

I think he has a point about sometimes being able to laugh but I wonder whether our society has now moved so that sex is not taken seriously enough.  Yes, there is plenty of advice about how to “do” sex, but we now hear a nervousness about the ubiquity of sexual images, particularly in online pornography, which adults feel is damaging young people’s sexual responses.

Lewis himself does acknowledge that alongside the roars of laughter, sex “is serious… quadruply so. First, theologically, because this is the body’s share in marriage which, by God’s choice, is the mystical image of the union between God and Man. Secondly, as what I will venture to call a sub-Christian, or Pagan or natural sacrament, our human participation in, and exposition of, the natural forces of life and fertility – the marriage of Sky-Father and Earth-Mother. Thirdly, on the moral level, in view of the obligations involved and the incalculable momentousness of being a parent and ancestor. Finally it has (sometimes, not always) a great emotional seriousness in the minds of the participants”.

Lewis actually seems to be taking it very seriously. His plea for people to laugh sometimes at sex sits alongside important discussion of the meaning sex has in all sorts of ways. In our society, when sex seems to be so often decoupled from any of this meaning, it seems to lead to unhappiness because sex is not taken seriously at all.

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Literature

In-groups

I made one of my oldest friends when she came into my living-room for the first time and saw the row of Virago books and the Barbara Pym paperbacks.  She knew immediately that we would be friends, because the bookshelves mirrored her own.  Soon we found we also followed The Archers and even only recently we discovered that we also both like the books of Elizabeth Goudge, a largely forgotten author of last century.

Lewis writes about friendship in one of the chapters of The Four Loves. He says “The typical expression of opening Friendship would be something like, ‘What? You too? I thought I was the only one’”.

He rightly points out that “friendship must be about something, even if it were only an enthusiasm for dominoes or white mice”.

I expect you’ve found this to be the case, and it is so restful when you know that your reaction to something, or your enthusiasm for something, will be mirrored in your friend’s reaction, and you can enjoy discussing it together. It’s even better when there is a group of you all with similar views or enthusiasms.

It can be hard to imagine that there can be anything bad about this kind of relationship. But as usual, Lewis brings us helpful insights.

He talks about how when two or more people come together in a joint enthusiasm, they can feel about their group of friends that they are “lucky beyond desert to be in this company. Especially when the group is together each bringing out all that is best, wisest, or funniest in all the others”.

The danger Lewis sees in this is that groups can become deaf to the opinion of the outer world. “Every real Friendship is a sort of secession, even a rebellion… of good men against the badness of society or of bad men against its goodness”.  In this description I can see some of the discussions I’ve had with like-minded people about Brexit.

This deafness to other opinions can lead to a “wholesale deafness which is arrogant and inhuman”.

In other words, we in our friendship group can come to believe that only we are right and that those who disagree with us are wrong. Friendship is bound to be exclusive in the sense that we are sharing enthusiasm and opinions which others may not hold, but Lewis points us that “from the innocent and necessary act of excluding to the spirit of exclusiveness is an easy step; and thence to the degrading pleasure of exclusiveness”.

We can become an in-group that looks down on and discounts those outside the group.

Nowadays when views seem to become polarised very easily, and when the reaction of “in-groups” to those who disagree with them can be to “cancel” them, Lewis’s warning seems very timely.

He says “Pride [is] the danger to which Friendships are naturally liable”. He is making the valid point that if we find friends who agree with our point of view, and we only associate with them, after a while we are in danger of looking down on and perhaps actively opposing all those who disagree with us.

He reminds us that friendship is not about patting ourselves on the back when we find someone who agrees with us and assuming that therefore we are right. “Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others”.

He seems to be saying that when we make good friends that should be the beginning of our recognising the beauty of humanity in everyone, not an excuse to exclude people.

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Literature

Taking liberties

After his introductory chapters to The Four Loves, Lewis embarks on a chapter for each of the four loves, and the first he defines as Affection, translated by the Greek word storge.

He describes Affection in an affectionate way. “It lives with simple, un-dress, private things; soft slippers, old clothes, old jokes, the thump of a sleepy dog’s tail on the kitchen floor, the sound of a sewing-machine.”

Lewis thinks that we can feel affection for people even when we don’t have a particular fellow-feeling with them, and that that affection often arises simply from the fact that they have been around for a long time. We are comfortable with them. And of course we are often most comfortable with our relatives, who have been in our lives for a long time, and with old friends.

But as always with Lewis, he also sounds a note of caution. We can’t assume that affection is always benign. Sometimes, people can use their affection as a weapon. He talks about the “maternal vampire who can never be caressed or obeyed enough”. He sees that sometimes people can use affection as an excuse for controlling people, for example by insisting on staying up late until they get in from a night out, thus making the night out a cause for guilt rather than pleasure as the mother waits up and they find the “frail, pale, weary face awaiting you, like a silent accusation”.

He also talks about how people can cite affection as a reason to be rude to the people they love. They take liberties because they say that because they are close to members of their family, this gives them the right to “say anything”. So, in Lewis’s view a person can then use this opportunity to say anything “spitefully in obedience to his resentments; or ruthlessly in obedience to his egoism, or at best stupidly, lacking in art”. The person “knows Affection takes liberties. He is taking liberties. Therefore (he concludes) he is being affectionate”.

We can probably all think of examples where this kind of “banter” among families or close friends can actually be very hurtful.

In talking about affection in this way, Lewis is laying bare how even the most apparently simple form of love can be twisted and distorted. He is forcing us to examine honestly our own dealings with other people and to consider whether we sometimes excuse ourselves making hurtful comments, taking liberties because we’re allowed to with close family and friends.

I’m struck by this because often when reading magazine articles about relationships I find that the emphasis is on me thinking about my own needs and what I deserve, rather than the impact my behaviour might have on other people. I have almost got into the habit of only seeing my interactions with others from the point of view of their effect on me.

Once again, Lewis is challenging.

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Literature

Woke!

After talking about love of nature in The Four Loves, Lewis touches on love for one’s country.

Here I was very interested to realise that he expresses views which are quite “woke” – something which was unexpected given that he was writing around 70 years ago, and that he can often appear sexist and write in a way that some people would regard as racist.

He is talking about the dangers of patriotism. This is at a time when Britain had only recently divested itself of much of the British empire. 

I think I would have expected him to endorse the patriotism that says that one’s country is better than other countries, particularly because this seems to have been a common view – the idea of a “land of hope and glory, mother of the free”.

However, his ideas are far more nuanced. He says that “a man’s reasons for not wanting his country to be ruled by foreigners are very like his reasons for not wanting his house to be burned down; because he ‘could not even begin’ to enumerate all the things he would miss”. This kind of feeling is perhaps behind the sorts of messages people were given to convince them to vote for Brexit – a feeling that somehow we were losing our “Britishness” into a faceless European bureaucracy.

But Lewis does not hold back when describing what was wrong with the British empire, seeming particularly distressed that a lot of what was done in the name of the Empire was also done in the name of Christianity.

“If ever the book which I am not going to write is written it must be the full confession by Christendom of Christendom’s specific contribution to the sum of human cruelty and treachery. Large areas of ‘the World’ will not hear us till we have publicly disowned much of our past. Why should they? We have shouted the name of Christ and enacted the service of Moloch.”

Disowning much of our past? The language may be old-fashioned, but Lewis’s sentiments here are modern and woke.

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Literature

Loving nature

Lewis has talked about nature in some of his other books that we have read this year. In Miracles, for example, he talks about how nature points us towards the likelihood of the existence of God. He loves nature and describes the coming of spring lyrically in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Now, in the second chapter of The Four Loves, he talks about “likings and loves for the sub-human” and describes what love of nature is. He says that loving nature is about perceiving a “mood” or “spirit”. It’s not about focusing in detail on some element of botany or geology, rather “Nature-lovers want to receive as fully as possible whatever nature, at each particular time and place, is, so to speak, saying”.

I guess he’s talking about something like the experience that is called “forest bathing” in modern speak. Enjoying whatever is happening in nature in a forest or on the seashore or on a mountain, but without elevating it into a religion.

He thinks that “what nature-lovers… get from nature is an iconography, a language of images. I do not mean simply visual images; it is the ‘moods’ or ‘spirits’ themselves – the powerful expositions of terror, gloom, jocundity, cruelty, lust, innocence, purity – that are the images. In them each man can clothe his own belief”.

Once people are experiencing these moods, Lewis feels that in the process nature can provide images that “give meaning to words like glory or fear”.

In other words, I think he is saying that what we see in nature can give us an idea of feelings associated with God – the glory of a sunset can help us understand God’s glory, or the fear we feel in the middle of a thunderstorm can help us understand fear of God.

But while nature can help us with imagery, Lewis cautions that nature does not actually teach us. He thinks that if we don’t realise that “the love of nature is beginning to turn into a nature religion” and in his view this is wrong.

This is a subtle point but I find it helpful when thinking about the world and the renewed focus there is on our responsibility to nature in the light of climate change and plastics and other pollution. I can enjoy the wonders of nature but once again Lewis is reminding me to look beyond the created to the Creator.